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KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Sometimes it's the little things that make a big difference in a child's diet:
Whole-wheat bread instead of white.
Real fruit instead of a fruit snack.
Skim milk instead of whole.
Too often we make healthy eating an all-or-nothing proposition, a system of rewards and punishments, but even minor dietary changes can add up quickly. "People are too extreme," says Shelly Summar, nutrition program coordinator for Children's Mercy hospitals in Kansas City. "On the one hand there's truth, and on the other hand there's reality."
The truth is nearly 9 million children and adolescents ages 6 to 19 are considered overweight. The number of children ages 6 to 11 who are overweight has more than doubled in the last 20 years.
The reality is that many families know they should eat healthfully, but studies show 60 percent of Americans don't know what they are going to eat for dinner at 4 p.m. Tired and hungry, many parents figure it's easier to go through the drive-through or call for pizza than to tough it out at the dinner table.
For the six months we worked with a team of home economists and dietitians to create The Eating for Life Series Plan. The four-part series is designed to feature healthy, well-balanced, easy-to-prepare recipes from seasonal ingredients found in a well-stocked supermarket. Each of the 30 recipes we've developed take into consideration the taste preferences and nutrition needs of each age group and includes a detailed nutritional analysis.
FORGET THE NUGGETS
Who needs fast food nuggets when you have Healthy Chicken Strips?
It proves to be a hands-down winner during a taste test at Santa Fe Trail Elementary in Independence, Mo. So we ask 6-year-old Zachary Michael if he can guess what is different about the chicken strip he has just gobbled down.
Zachary looks at his plate quizzically. "Yogurt?" he responds.
Zachary is among a group of 5-to 10-year-olds who attend cooking club once a week as an elective class before the school day begins. A dozen children from the club were assigned to serve as pint-size taste testers for recipes developed for our Eating for Life Plan.
Eager to lend their taste buds, the children gather around a miniature table in a classroom and are served with an array of dishes-at 8 a.m., no less. Although we worry they might be full from breakfast, it turns out they are not the least bit shy about asking for seconds.
The tasting starts out with the kid-friendly Orange Carrot Salad and moves on to the Healthy Chicken Strips, Pizza Pasta Salad, Beans and Franks and, finally, the Blueberry-Peach Cobbler.
As we serve the chicken strips, 6-year-old Justin Burton says his dad made homemade chicken strips once. He doesn't remember exactly how his dad made them, but he does remember they were good. But we want to know if the chicken strips are as good as the ones the children eat in a restaurant.
"They're better. Much better. The meat is softer," offers 8-year-old Caitlin Fitzpatrick.
When the children try the pasta salad, a few pick through it to remove vegetables that are not to their liking. When asked how many servings of vegetables they should eat each day, Caitlin has a ready answer. "Two to three servings. I know my Food Pyramid," she says, pointing to a poster on the classroom wall.
Marie McDaniel, a grandmotherly child-care provider who leads the cooking club, uses lessons from Nutra-Net, a grass-roots, not-for-profit nutrition education program based in Independence.
Nutra-Net is designed to teach children the basics of good nutrition through a pictorial cookbook and hands-on projects. Unfortunately, with just 25 minutes per cooking club session, it's often impossible to do a hands-on activity. Still, McDaniel does her best. She bought used table settings from a thrift store so she could teach the children how to set a table. She brought in a bucket of sand one day so they could learn how to measure ingredients.
While others pick at the pasta salad, 6-year-old Drew Harvey happily gobbles it down. "My mom cooks this, and it's good," he says.
But did he know there was spinach in the salad?
"There was?" he asks. "I didn't even taste it."
Breanna Greer is busy picking out the tomatoes, leaving the pasta on her plate. "They're so healthy for you," she says when she finally spears a cube of tomato and lifts it to her mouth.
The only dish that meets with slight resistance from our testers is the Beans and Franks. Some kids don't seem to like the taste, but others say they actually eat a lot of Beans and Franks at home and aren't interested.
"I like beans and weenies," Drew says.
He never mentions the lentils we slipped in the dish.
Then it's time for dessert, always a kid favorite. The Blueberry Peach Cobbler is no exception.
"I like the blueberries a lot. I mean a lot, a lot," Caitlin says. "Sometimes I eat Maine blueberries straight out the bag frozen. I just fish them out. They even taste good frozen."
"I like the peaches and the blueberries," Daisha Tscharner says, rubbing her tummy in agreement after her second helping.
Meanwhile, Drew cleans his plate and asks for second helpings of the Pizza Pasta Salad, Chicken Nuggets and Blueberry Peach Cobbler.
"Drew is a real big fan," Caitlin says. "I bet he'd go to your restaurant all the time if you had one."
(c) 2004, The Kansas City Star. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.